Paying Attention to the Musical Conversation

Jazz is, at its core, a spontaneous, improvised conversation between musicians on the bandstand.

“In every conversation,” says Stephen Holley, Jazz Mentor for September 2011, “you have those who speak when they have something to say, those who speak, yet don’t really have much to say, and those who wait for the right moment to insert an almost sage-like comment. You have close-talkers, mumblers, and friends with whom you genuinely enjoying conversing.

“So goes the musical conversation with the members of a performance group, regardless of the setting — club gig, recording date, rehearsal, etc. On any given occasion, a musician has the responsibility to listen, react, adjust, refocus, and add to the conversation on an almost constant basis! This is true in all styles of music, but it is arguably most prevalent in jazz and other improvisational genres.

“Below are a few thoughts on how your students (and quite possibly you, as well!) can become more involved in the conversation, regardless of level of musicianship or experience.

1) Taking part in the musical conversation compels musicians to develop their critical listening skills. Is what you’re playing serving the song? Is it supporting the soloist? Are the bass and drums locking? Are the piano and guitar comping rhythms complimentary to each other? Is your contribution adding to or taking away from the composition?

2) Be mindful of the people you’re playing with – their strengths and weaknesses — as you may have to modify your playing to the benefit of the song. On any given gig, you might have a bassist who is content to safeguard the groove all night, a drummer who feels as though every song should have an open drum solo, or a soloist who says the same thing over and over and over… The members of the group and their musical tendencies (and these tendencies can change from song to song, gig to gig!) help to define how you should approach the conversation.

3) With a verbal conversation, more often than not, one person is talking at a time. But with a musical conversation, you have multiple, sometimes dozens of musicians contributing their musical thoughts, ideas, and opinions at any one moment! If you think about it, it’s really quite amazing! Paul Berliner has some great thoughts on the subject in his book Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation.

4) Be prepared to fail. One of the best ways to learn is to fail. Take chances in the conversation; interject a bold thought now and again — speak up! If your input adds to the conversation, you’ll know it by the approving glances. If not, well, you’ll know that, too!

5) When learning a new piece, I suggest that my students spend 10% of their focus on listening to their musical surroundings and the remaining 90% on their part, technique, tuning, etc. As they become more familiar with the song, that percentage should begin to shift, and eventually end up closer to 10% devoted to their instrument and 90% on listening and reacting to the conversation. Of course, these numbers will be different for everyone depending on musical experience, knowledge of the song, familiarity with the other musicians, etc.

“Charles Mingus once said ‘You can’t improvise on nothing, man — you gotta improvise on something.’ Bottom line, you have to have something to say. Don’t mumble, and don’t shrug your shoulders. Be purposeful in everything you say, and everything you play! Whether you’re an inexperienced student musician or a professional walking into a new gig, being aware and taking part in the musical conversation is a responsibility that must not be taken lightly.”

Steve Holley is the coordinator of the Commercial Music Program at the Kent Denver School in Englewood, CO. Under his leadership, the program’s DownBeat award-winning ensembles have performed at venues in Memphis, New Orleans, New York, and Miami, among others. Steve has performed with artists ranging from Arturo Sandoval to Tia Fuller, from James Williams to Doug Wamble, among many others. Prior to coming to Colorado he lived, performed, and taught in his adopted hometown of Memphis.

—Nick Webb, August 17, 2011, © National Association for Music Education